This week, thousands of politicians and journalists have flocked to Cleveland, Ohio for the 2016 Republican National Convention. While party members are convening at the city’s 20,000-seat Quicken Loans Arena, many activists are using a different space to get their political message out: Cleveland’s Public Square.
“People have been signing up for half-hour chunks of time to be able to address the public from a stump,” says Colin Woodard, a contributing editor at Politico, who wrote about the square for the publication. “[The outdoor venue is] playing some sort of oratorical role for those who aren’t in the convention itself.”
The influx of speakers at the Public Square hearkens back to the park’s roots. It was first laid out in 1796; and over the decades, it grew to function as a place for speakers – most famously, President William McKinley, Stephen Douglas and Horace Greeley – to address the masses.
“It was always intended to be the heart of the city,” Woodard says.
But Cleveland grew quickly; its population amassed from 1,000 to 20,000 residents between 1830 and 1850 alone. With that rapid change came conflict over how to best use the land.
“[The square] became, as the city grew, a battleground between those who wanted it to be a transit hub and those who wanted it to be a civic space,” explains Woodard. “That’s been a struggle that’s been fought in the city’s history for over a century now.”
From the 1860s on, the square was cut into four quadrants by busy roads, becoming a major intersection at the center of the city’s buzzing public transit system, and losing its charm and recreational utility to pedestrians in the process.
It wasn’t until 2010 that Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson helped set a plan into motion to revive the square as a civic space. James Corner, the urban landscape designer behind Manhattan’s High Line and Santa Monica’s Tongva Park, gave the Public Square a $50 million renovation.
The finished product, which debuted on June 30, is six acres of green land, filled with gardens, sculptural seating and stages to accommodate political speakers, which make it a perfect fit alongside the Republican National Convention.
“James [Corner] came in to design this park in Cleveland and to try to knit those public spaces back together,” says Woodard. “They made it back into a place people would actually like to gather, rather than just get away from.
Read more from Woodard about Cleveland’s Public Square here.